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DISTRICT COURT

Company that helps disabled residents says ex-employee stole data

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A woman who was fired last year from her job at Family Resource Center is accused of stealing information about the center’s clients in an attempt to poach them for a competing organization operated by her mother, according to a lawsuit.

Dusty Stork, who had worked for Family Resource Center for about 20 years, was fired in May 2020 for allegedly taking a scooter from the organization that she gave to her father and sister to use.

The organization provides assistance with daily tasks to about 400 people with disabilities who live in residential homes. It has an annual operating budget of about $7.5 million and largely is funded with government money but also solicits donations.

The lawsuit that is pending in district court is the result of an email Stork sent in October — months after she was fired — to three former Family Resource Center employees that contained lists of the center’s clients and employees, which she inadvertently sent to one of the center’s email addresses.

“Stork was caught red-handed violating her non-compete and non-disclosure agreement by distributing a confidential client list which should not have been in her possession,” the lawsuit alleges.

In a court hearing last month, Stork said she sent the lists so that they could be used as templates by Caring Hearts of West Central Iowa, a competing organization that was launched last year by Stork’s mother, Lou Ann Mowrey, who had previously led Family Resource Center and founded it.

“Hopefully this info will be helpful,” Stork wrote in the email.

Stork had signed an agreement in 2009 that barred her from “directly or indirectly” soliciting her former Family Resource Center clients for one year after she was fired. Stork also agreed to keep client information confidential after she was fired.

The agreement says Stork might be required to pay Family Resource Center up to $15,000 for violating the terms.

Stork and Caring Hearts are defendants of the lawsuit, and they largely have denied the allegations it contains. They have made counterclaims against Family Resource Center for slander and libel and interference with Caring Heart’s business and claim the center’s executive director, Tim Nichols, falsely told people that Stork was facing criminal prosecution.

Stork has not been charged with a crime, court records show, for the alleged theft of confidential records or for the scooter.

Stork had permission to let her father use the organization’s scooter in August 2019, according to documents associated with her unemployment insurance claim. The scooter had been donated to Family Resource Center but had gone unused for years.

In February 2020, Nichols asked Stork about the scooter, and she falsely claimed it was being used by one of the center’s clients, which led to her termination, according to the unemployment documents.

But an administrative law judge sided with Stork and awarded her unemployment benefits because there wasn’t sufficient proof that work-related misconduct warranted her firing.

Stork said she currently is not a paid employee of Caring Hearts but volunteers there.

In the court hearing last month, Nichols said more than a dozen clients have left Family Resource Center for Caring Hearts. He said the organization also expended thousands of dollars to notify and help protect its clients from Stork’s data breach.

“My concern is the people who are being solicited without wanting to be solicited,” Nichols told the Times Herald. “These are very fragile individuals. It causes an extraordinary amount of confusion for them.”

Other area organizations also provide similar services to residents with disabilities, including New Hope Village and Opportunity Living.

Nichols also formed another business last year called Ability United that is meant to assist residents with higher-level needs. It technically is a competitor of Family Resource Center, which Nichols said “isn’t really built to serve that level of clients.”

As part of the lawsuit, Family Resource Center sought and was granted an injunction that mirrors Stork’s non-compete agreement. She is barred from soliciting clients until May — which marks one year since her termination — and from divulging confidential information. The lawsuit also seeks an unspecified amount of monetary damages from Stork and Caring Hearts.

Stork and Caring Hearts also seek an unspecified amount of monetary damages and a court order to prohibit Nichols and Family Resource Center from interfering with Caring Hearts’ business. A court hearing to discuss that potential order is set for May 3.

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